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‘This is my only source of income’: a landlord’s fight against foreclosure highlights the struggle for small property owners

NJ.com logo NJ.com 3/1/2021 Peter D’Auria, nj.com
a statue of a man in a car: Leslie Boamah, a Guttenberg landlord, is fighting to stop his apartment buildings (in background) from being foreclosed, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. © Reena Rose Sibayan | The Jersey Journal/nj.com/TNS Leslie Boamah, a Guttenberg landlord, is fighting to stop his apartment buildings (in background) from being foreclosed, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

Two weeks ago, Leslie Boamah came to a Guttenberg apartment building he once owned to find the locks changed and his belongings — tools used for making building repairs — in the trash.

If he were a tenant, such action would be illegal under the state’s eviction moratorium. But small landlords like Boamah, whose buildings were transferred to the possession of a rent receiver pending foreclosure, have few options for relief — even as rental income has dried up.

“If we don’t get help right now, what is coming is very serious,” Boamah, 43, said. “Because there’s many of my friends who are in the same boat that I am in. Their property is being taken away from them. They didn’t do nothing wrong.”

Boamah is not the average Hudson County landlord. Born in Ghana, Boamah and his mother sought asylum in the U.S. in the mid-1990s after his father was executed by a firing squad. As a high schooler, Boamah won a national prize for a painting depicting that execution; later, he studied art at Cooper Union on a scholarship.

After graduating, Boamah moved to Jersey City, where he spent about a decade “buying and selling,” he said. In 2018, Boamah sold his Jersey City properties and took out a roughly $1.2 million mortgage with an interest rate of 7.05%, to buy three small properties, two in Guttenberg and one in North Bergen, with a total of seven rental units. Boamah estimated he invested $600,000 “or more” into the buildings.

“Everything was fine,” he said. “Tenants were paying rent. Then they stopped paying as soon as the pandemic hit.”

Some of his tenants moved out, while others simply stopped paying, he said. (He has managed to keep another small rental building, he said, because the tenants continue to pay rent.)

“This is my only source of income,” he said. “It got to a point that I didn’t have any money even to buy gas.”

In September, Boamah’s lender, Wilmington Trust, moved to foreclose on the three buildings in Guttenberg and North Bergen. Boamah did not pay a mortgage installment due March 9, according to filings in a foreclosure case for the property. A Wilmington Trust representative could not be reached for comment.

Bill Paige, a housing counselor at the Waterfront Project, said the size of Boamah’s real-estate portfolio — which comprises five small properties — puts him in a difficult position.

Both New Jersey and the federal government have implemented foreclosure and mortgage relief programs, but landlords are generally required to live in the building in which they rent out units, Paige said.

“They can have a four-family, three units can be rental,” Paige said. “But they have to be in the property themselves in order for them to benefit from all the protection that’s out there when it comes to the CARES Act, the (foreclosure) moratorium, those sorts of things.”

But small landlords like Boamah do not have the scale to be able to weather COVID-19 1/4 u2032s economic downturn. Ron Simoncini, the executive director of the Hudson County Property Rights Coalition, said the experience of small landlords like Boamah is very different from larger property management companies. A small landlord with 40 units of rental housing, he said, has much less flexibility than a large landlord with hundreds of units.

“What happens if you’re the smaller guy, and 10 people move out? And another five don’t pay the rent? And now 15 out of your 40 units don’t have any revenue?” Simoncini said. “You’re totally underwater. And there’s no program for you.”

Last summer, New Jersey set up the Small Landlord Emergency Grant Program, a $25 million program through which struggling small landlords could apply for state funding to cover missed rental payments. But applicants complained of complicated procedures, confusing requirements, and insufficient outreach. The state eventually cut the program’s budget after few landlords applied.

In December, a Hudson County Superior Court judge allowed the foreclosure on Boamah’s property to move forward. Last month, a rent receiver took possession of the buildings, changing the locks on his properties and throwing out tools he had left in one of them, he said.

Boamah said he tried contacting local and state officials for help. He calls the governor’s office “20 times a day,” he said, to no avail.

What he’s experiencing now, he said, does not square with what he believed when he first came to the U.S.

“The America that I know says that if you work hard, you can get somewhere. It’s the American Dream,” he said. “But it’s not what I’m seeing right now.”

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